The Smirk

Recently I was trying to tell a friend about two historical mystery series I just discovered.  I’ve mentioned them here before, and no, I have no intention of naming them because they’re both bestsellers and I don’t need that kind of grief.  (Those of you who correspond with me regularly can ask for the series’ names and I’ll name them, privately.)

One of them is set in the early twentieth century, the other just before the Regency.  As I said, I’ve been reading them both at once, alternating between.  Neither of them are my normal fare.  One I’m reading because I have a craving for that time period.  The other I’m reading because it came up in a list of “war fiction” which is something I’ll need for the book after A Few Good Men (for those who got advanced reading rights for that, this is the book from Zen’s perspective.)  I mean, I’ll need the mood.  Of course the book – work titled Revolution – is space opera or at least science fiction (can you still call it space opera when no one leaves the Earth.  Oh, wait.  Zen comes from Eden, so I guess so.)

Anyway, while I’m reading both, the proto-regency one leaves a much deeper impression.  Also, if I’m in an impatient mood (look, I have kids and cats) I can’t stand to read the twentieth century one.

I was recommending both to my friend, but trying to explain to him the … texture difference between the two.  I said a lot of “I don’t know” and things like “one just feels more real, somehow, while the other I think if I read five back to back would start to annoy me.”  Among other things, the one set in the regency has real and painstaking research that I have not found flaw in (and let me tell you…) while the other seems the result of having read a book called “daily life in–” and a lot of fiction set in that time.

And then I walked away from the email exchange, thought about it and realized what it was.

The regency plays it straight, in the sense that the author did research to the best of her ability and is trying her utmost to convey life in that time, with perhaps very minor adjustments to prevent the modern reader from running screaming into the night.  The 20th century one is full of … condescension towards the unenlightened people in the first half of the century.  The main character is completely out of her time, having all sorts of late 20th early 21st attitudes, even if she does periodically have “qualms” about them.  And the people who don’t have those attitudes are shown as somehow blinkered.

Mind you, it’s not in your face and obvious, but you get the feeling that the whole time the writer was smirking at the times behind her back.

Look, Agatha Christie had a ton of odd opinions on governance and on “the right people” but at least they are her opinions – by which I mean you get the feeling that was simply how she saw the world.  (And they didn’t bother me, save in the thrillers where… never mind.)  There is a sense of sincerity, of her telling them as she sees them.

In this other series – and they’re by no means alone.  In fact, it’s one of my pet peeves with historical books – you get the feeling the author feels smarter than her material, if that makes any sense.  The author thinks that those people are curiously benighted, but she must play as if their little concerns were real.

Somehow this attitude taints the book, because the psychology of the characters seems off, and because after a while, the reader gets the feeling that the writer is smirking AT him.

You see, to respect the intelligence of the reader you have to respect the intelligence of the characters.  Some things seem unfathomable to us today like, say, for me, the prohibition.  BUT I can think about it and read bios of prohibitionists, and sort of “get” it.  I wouldn’t attempt to write one unless I did.  (No, right now I have no plans to write one.  It’s just an example.)  It’s like when I write something set in Tudor England.  I am not a monarchist (though, full disclosure, my first 10 or so votes were straight party monarchist, in Portugal – mostly because I was going with “first do no evil.” Also, because it upset my parents.  I was young, okay?) but I can get into the mind set of someone for whom mind-and-sovereign are inextricably linked.  I wouldn’t write them otherwise.

Once I identified that feeling of being smirked at, I realized I found it in all sorts of other situations – in science fiction with pat or by-rote worldbuilding.  In mysteries where the murderer is almost dancing in front of the main character proclaiming his guilt on page two, and yet the murder is not solved.

These can happen through incompetence, of course.  But it has a different feel when it’s done on purpose.  It’s even throughout, like the same amount – of nearly zero – effort was made.  And it grates on the reader’s nerves.

At the risk of sounding sappy the most important thing, perhaps, for your voice, other than confidence in yourself and the story, is authenticity.  Do your best to portrait truth, even in your fiction.  This is not the same as portraying day to day life, because we already have that and don’t need to read it.  It’s more portraying what you view as the truth of the times or the people, and making people and times as real as possible within the ordered confines of fiction.

If you do so, if you play fair with your readers, adult to adult, they’ll respond honestly.

If you use stereotypes and stereotypical situations, and it’s obvious you feel superior to your material, your reader will know too.  And after a while it will start to grate.

Believe it or not, even from behind the pages of a book, readers can tell when you smirk.

87 responses to “The Smirk

  1. This explains precisely why I intensely dislike the TV show “Mad Men.” Not because the writers are smirking at us but because they got it so unbelievably “right” as far as the attitudes of the characters and times. I have a hearing (and apparently ‘seeing’) problem when it comes to condescension: my hearing (or reading comprehension) stops working and no more input will reach my brain until the condescension is no long present – whether verbal or written (some doctors are a prime example – “Okay, now would you send in someone with actual people skills to explain to me what I didn’t hear you say because you were being patronizing?”).

    • Thereby demonstrating how patronizing and condescending attitudes originate.

      I’m not a doc, but my reply to your last demand would be “No. I haven’t got time to figure out how to deal with people who can’t process data if the delivery method doesn’t stroke their egos enough.”

  2. That’s one reason I find Patrick O’Brian’s Nelson-era sea stories more enjoyable than C.S. Forester’s Hornblower books. Hornblower is a 20th century man wearing a funny hat — he bathes daily, he’s opposed to flogging and slavery, etc. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin seem more like men of their time. Maturin is a doctor who never washes; Aubrey is more concerned with prize money than patriotism. I predict those books will be “classics” a hundred years from now.

  3. ppaulshoward

    In other words Sarah, readers aren’t dumb.

  4. Two of the writers I use as models are women who I consider the best historical novelists of the 20th Century: Dame Dorothy Dunnett, the first chapter of whose “Game of Kings” I send to people who want to learn how to write with a flair and a little farce; and Cecelia Holland, who wrote her first NYT Bestseller when she was 16, published it at 18 and never looked back. Dave Drake thinks she is a better writer than he is, if that tells you something. I recommend Holland’s “Great Maria” for people who need to learn how to do description with dialog. Both Dunnett and Holland are erudite in feel, but don’t talk down to the reader, or smirk at them for that matter.

    If you haven’t read Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles or any of Holland’s books, you should. Analysing what they do will make anybody a better writer.


  5. I suspect it depends upon your intended audience. The success of historical romances that are more costume parties than historical tells me that for some readers these inaccuracies do not matter.

    The Spouse will tell you that I was having the Screaming Mimi-s watching a TV show l usually enjoy so absolutely butcher courtroom procedures that it made my head hurt. I grew up surrounded by courtroom lawyers, so I admit I can be a bit picky on the matter, but even the Spouse was having problems with the dramatic liberties that were being taken. In the context of this particular show it was just was WRONG six ways from Adam. If it had been a book it would have been dismissed and never finished. (In our household, out of respect for books in general, we do not throw them against walls, but sometimes we want to.)

    Don’t mistake, I doubt few would enjoy a truly accurate representation of police and court life, even in a procedural. That would be filled with tedious minutia and boredom. (Once again I consider with awe what Heinlein accomplished in making five pages explaining the working detail of a space suit engaging…) Certain forms or styles of stories have developed their own reality, which I can accept so long as they retain an internal honesty. An author may choose to break the rules of their form. I know, I as a consumer, will feel cheated if it is not done with understanding and to a purpose.

    Thank you, Sarah, for giving words to my frustration.

    • It’s not so much the inaccuracy that bothers me. Yes, that does too, but I will play within the limits of the field. I even can enjoy romances that are “dress up dramas.” My issue is more with the books that pretend to be accurate but just aren’t so. The ones that take the stereotypes of the era, for ex. Like the ones set in the twenties where everyone is a “bright young thing” and says toodles or some such. If you read people of the time, they DIDN’T speak that way. Some did, but it wasn’t all over. And I keep thinking as I read it “the author knows better but she thinks the reader doesn’t.

      • If an author knows better and still chooses to do something so silly and unnecessary there are a number of options. (I realize this is not really comprehensive…) They may think that using this language creates a certain kind of image of the twenties which they desire. Less happily they might think that this is how the readers think people behaved and the author may have concluded it is not their job in such a story to inform the reader otherwise. Sadly, it could be what the publisher wants, thinking it is what the market will accept, in which case the author may have cow-towed in interest of getting published and paying bills, which, once started, is a hard habit to break. Or worst, the author and the publisher think most readers are fools who should take what they are given.

      • Well, courtroom drama and mystery are mostly grotesquely wrong. “Twelve Angry Men” is so preposterously off, but really good theater critics are crazy about it. And don’t get me started about “Inherit the Wind,” it libels every last person involved. L. Sprague de Camp’s popular account of the case makes that clear.

  6. Preach it, sister!

    That’s a regular source of irritation for me. For some reason, it bothers me more when it seems to be unintentional. (Most likely because I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer feel that I have to finish every book I start, and treating me like an idiot is a good way to have that happen.) To pick an example, I was pissed off for weeks after I read Crichton’s Timeline. It was great that there was so much explanation that the people used to be just as smart and capable back then, but nearly the entire book was spent showing that the modern day characters were simply better.

  7. Yes, yes, YES!

    This is why I love the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries (the five-hour one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle), while the recent Hollywood movie (with Kiera Knightley, whose name I hope I didn’t just misspell, playing opposite… some guy whose name I don’t remember at all) bugged me to no end. The scene that sticks in my mind years after seeing it was when Charlotte tells Elizabeth that she’s just accepted Mr. Collins’s proposal, and says “Not everyone has the luxury of marrying for love.” Okay, I’m following you so far, screenwriters. “So don’t you judge me, Lizzie. Don’t you dare judge me!” Insert tire-screeching noise as my suspension of disbelief comes to a COMPLETE stop right at this point.

    “Don’t judge me”? Really, screenwriters? Really? In a story set in 19th century England, you’re going to have a character expressing late 20th century opinions like “don’t judge me”? In the early 19th century, people not only judged everything their neighbors did, but they also felt they had every right in the world to judge them. In fact, this is what drives the entire plot of Pride and Prejudice‘s second half: after Lydia runs off with Wickham without getting married, her parents know that her reputation will be ruined, her sisters will be tarnished by association, and they’ll never be able to marry rich men unless the scandal is hushed up somehow. And so when Mr. Darcy forces Wickham to marry Lydia, he’s rescued the Bennets’ reputation from scandal and all is saved, hence Elizabeth’s gratitude. And you’re just going to throw all that plot complexity away with a “don’t judge me”?

    … Yeah, that still rankles, even though it’s been years since the one and only time I ever watched that movie.

    P.S. Incidentally, I should specify that I’m a man, since I have one of those gender-neutral names. Yes, some men do enjoy Pride and Prejudice.

    • oh, no, my pet peeve with that idiotic movie is the “We’re all fools in love” — Jane Austen would never be guilty of that ridiculous statement and it is in fact completely stupid in contest. Lizzy doesn’t FALL IN LOVE with Darcy on site. That movie is a bucket of cold, slimy FAIL. And yes, there is the smirk — for instance Lizzy’s parents seem to be farmers? There is a difference between living in a country manor and being farmers of the type portrayed. (rolls eyes.) BUT the screen writers did NOT bother.

      • A person I know and respect described the K.N. version of Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austin meets the Brontes gone all wrong.

        • The only good thing about that movie is that my friend Sofie wrote an hilarious story on Lizzy suddenly finding herself flat-chested. It included the immortal line “She could not bear for him to be alive in the world and think her flat-chested.”

          • I can think of one other good thing about that movie, which raised my estimate of the film from “unadulterated loathing” to “Okay, I’ll finish sitting through it. Once.” That was the costumes and the dancing. I’m no expert on Regency-era dances or costumes, so for all I know the costume people may have made Classic Blunders Numbers One Through Ten in their respective departments — but the ballroom scenes felt real to me. In other words, for a few minutes I forgot that I was watching 21st century characters playing dress-up, and it actually felt like I was watching 19th century people going about their social lives.

            Of course, then the characters opened their mouths and spoiled the illusion, but I’ve already ranted about that one. 🙂

          • I don’t even get to the ‘Don’t judge me.” My head is still exploding at the idea that Elizabeth was ‘free to marry for love.’ I believe that she turned down Mr. Collins because she could not respect him, not because she had any such foolish idea that she could marry for love. (Or is that luv?)

            I have some fondness for the older 1980 BBC productions of P&P staring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. Not so lush as the Colin Firth, and a bit formal in presentation, it was still lovely.

    • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

      This is why I love the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries

      That’s why I love the BBC!

      I usually avoid American Television and Movies. Canadian and British productions are far more likely to “get it right” overall, i.e. produce something that makes sense. Take the Sky live action productions of the Terry Pratchett books for example, they weren’t perfect, but they were pretty damned good. Compare that to the American remake of The Prisoner, or the The Avengers (classic 1960’s British TV show), and they don’t even come close.

      Or take a look at Blackstone, a Canadian production about life on a First Nations Reservation, if you can catch it (be warned – this is Canadian TV, the language isn’t what Americans are used to on the airwaves).

      Compare the original BBC Life on Mars with the American remake…

      I have a huge DVD collection which is mostly Canadian and British. I know what I like.


      • Actually he misspoke, Wayne. The p & P with Firth is A &E. BBC made what I call R2 D Darcy P & P and all the sisters look like. VERY hard to follow.

        • The BBC and A&E co-produced the 1995 P&P with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. When the BBC decided to do a new series of productions for the bi-centenary of Jane Austen they did not make a new P&P, but re-broadcast the 1995 version.

          • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

            It’s the 1995 BBC version that I have on DVD. I don’t like P&P all that much myself, but I got it for when my wife’s mother comes to visit. She loves P&P.


  8. I hope this is a generational thing, but during my teen years, everything I saw on tv, or read in books (a lot of SF gets this way), or heard in school was sneering at those stupid ignorant people in the past and saying how much smarter we are today. Or how much smarter and better we educated city folk are than those dumb hicks in the country. (And a lot of us book-smart nerds got picked on in high school and developed the We are Superior to Those Troglodytes attitudes. Some people never get over that.)

    At the extreme, there have been regimes that tried to destroy everything about the past. Look at the Chinese cultural revolution, or the “don’t trust anyone over 30” sixties in America. There’s this frighteningly mistaken idea that if we cut off all knowledge of the past, we’ll somehow become perfect and pure.

    Now, I know there’s been a lot of ignorance through the centuries, people who didn’t have access to books, or even the ability to read (the boob tube, much as I dislike it, has disseminated behavior, standards, ideas, and a superior vocabulary). But people weren’t stupid. They just had limited resources and information, and mostly were just trying to survive. When the consequences of a change going wrong means you starve or die, you get really cautious about trying new things. And every convention we detest evolved for a reason, often a good reason; sadly, the conventions continue to exist long after that reason is gone.

    • ppaulshoward

      Sadly, the reason for the convention may still remain but nobody knows the reason so an attempt to remove the convention succeeds and then we have problems because the reason still exists and is valid. [Sad Smile]

      • Too true.

        As a complete geek, I would like to return to old style courtship rules, with defined procedures and signals, maybe some matchmakers. Oh, and dancing classes with steps and dance cards. Guys used to like to dance back then, and they were often good dancers, until this free form stuff came in that only us girls can do and not look ridiculous. ^_^

        • Don’t know, when I watch films from the late 60’s onward and see dance scenes I am not sure either side really looks good doing free-style.

          Bring back a bit of formal manners, social training and preparation? Renew Cotillion? Yes, why not? But how to sell it to the young people who are now used to going over the top with un-chaperoned dances and proms?

          • Actually, I think they’d go for it, after some initial grousing and eye-rolling. I think that’s a big part of the resurgance of Jane Austen – girls want a more courtly civilized environment. And I find guys mostly prefer rules.

            • EXACTLY. My older son has unilaterally started wearing shirt and tie to school because then he feels “on”. My younger son refuses to wear tie unless it’s formal, (for which I don’t blame him) but wears button downs and slacks.

            • ppaulshoward

              Laurie, there are still rules but the Number One Rule seems to be “Ladies, don’t tell the Guys the Rules”. [Very Big Grin]

          • I don’t know. I’ve wondered if Steam Punk cons are a reaction. I attended one, w/ college age kids, and I’ve never been anywhere so well mannered. Doors were held for ladies. Pardon me and please were said. I wonder if it would be rather a relief for kids, to have something to lean into, if that makes sense.

            • Yes! Steampunk cons are definitely a reaction! And steampunk is almost mainstream these days. RenFaires might also apply. BTW, in both, guys are expected and allowed to behave like men, not boys, and the clothing makes everyone look good, regardless of shape or size. ^_^

            • didn’t one of Neil Stephenson’s novels involve a near-future “Neo-Victorian” commune?

              • Diamond Age. IMO — I have opinions about everything! — he kind of lost it in the last third of the book, but other than that it’s an excellent book.

            • Steam Punk con? Oh. Jealous. The anime con which I staff had a Steam Punk theme this year, and I was happy as a clam. (I would love to do an elegant goth/steam punk hybrid.)

              As to manners, I live in the southeast and, fortunately there are quite a number of young men here who will still hold a door for a woman. It was very strange the first time I was addressed by a young person as Ma’am.

          • But how to sell it to the young people who are now used to going over the top with un-chaperoned dances and proms?

            Beds in the back.

          • “Renew Cotillion? Yes, why not?”

            Because the experience sucks for those people who have two left feet and are unpopular to boot?

            My childhood sucked enough as it was; being presented with an instruction manual of exactly how it was going to suck at what point in my life would not have improved the shituation [sic] any.

            • Ditto on childhood sucking, but I think I’d have preferred clear rules. I grew up in a society where it was impossible to even establish if you were dating or “just friends” and where men were too macho to tell a woman they loved her. So I did the obvious — for me — and went straight to dating foreigners. (It’s the go-around instead of through a blockage. I use it a lot.) As for dancing, I’m surprisingly “good” at free form — I suspect I’d have sucked at formal. Why? Well, I took a belly dancing class early nineties. I’m fine at each of the moves. I just don’t remember the sequence. (Of course, that might have changed. When I hit my head it seems to have improved my visual and spacial reasoning. I’m the only person for whom rephrenology seems to have worked.) I have this hazy idea that rules might have made my childhood suck less. Then again, all I ever used rules for was to do the opposite. There might be no way to make my childhood suck less. (Shrugs.)

              • There might be no way to make my childhood suck less.

                Is there anyone who goes through childhood without something sucking? School can be hell, particularly so if you are an outlier. But for just about everyone there is some bad memories that haunt them.

                I keep in mind a sequence from a Mary Tyler Moore Show. (This is from memory, so please forgive me for any inaccuracies.) Phyllis and Rhoda and a couple of other female friends are sitting in Mary’s apartment sharing bad memories from High School. Mary tries to enter the conversation, but is dismissed with the comment, ‘I bet you even had your own car.’ Mary, tearing up replies, ‘Yes. But it was a Hudson … and it – was – brown.’

              • It is pretty much a given that childhood sucks. Being ignorant and powerless sucks. Having rules (or different rules) would merely make it suck differently.

        • EVERY geek wants matchmakers. My kids have been known to express this feeling “Wish someone would just set it up at the appropriate time, when I finish my degree.” It’s a “I don’t want to bother with THAT” feeling. It would, however, be disastrous for most of us. And both my kids panic when I say “I’m sure my mom can make a list of girls who–” “MOOOOOOOOM. NOOOOOO”

          • When I say matchmaker, I mean more the one who interviews everyone and then goes over to the guy and says, “You know, that one girl you mentioned really wouldn’t work out, but this other gal would likely say yes if you asked her out, if your intentions are honorable.” The go-between type who can spare everyone’s feelings and set everything up.

            (The fantasy that we all really want is some psychic omniscient being who says, “You go with him, you go with her, . . .” and somehow matches everyone with the perfect mate. Which is impossible and wouldn’t work even if there was such a being, but it’s there, in one form or another, in a lot of fantasy fiction.)

    • And every convention we detest evolved for a reason, often a good reason; sadly, the conventions continue to exist long after that reason is gone.

      I love G.K. Chesterton’s quote on the subject:

      In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

      This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.

      G.K. Chesterton was absolutely right. There are way too many politicians, business leaders, and other “leaders” who fall into the category of Chesterton’s “more modern type of reformer” and who really should (but don’t) know better. And I don’t think it’s a generational thing, either — the “we’re smarter than our parents were” attitude has been around since, oh, pretty much the dawn of time.

      And if you want a laugh, find people with the “we’re smarter than our predecessors — look at the stupid stuff they believed back then” attitude and ask them about “the wisdom of the ancients” who believed in, well, just pick that person’s favorite belief (reincarnation, the healing power of crystals, druidism, whatever is currently in vogue) and see what you get. Chances are they’ll do a complete mental 180 from “we’re smarter than our predecessors” to “our predecessors were smarter than us” without ever noticing the contradictions in their own worldview.

      (BTW, if you want to read the essay that Chesterton quote is from, go here and hit Ctrl-F to search for “The Drift from Domesticity”).

      • That’s absolutely right. Unless you know what it was for, you don’t know the consequences of removing it. After all, the bull may be waiting over the hill, where you can’t see him.

        • But the bull has a periscope, so he can see *you*. Gary Larson wouldn’t lie, would he?

        • Sounds like a lot of re-orgs I’ve been through. The new regime comes in and doesn’t find out why things are there, until they get rid of them.

      • And I don’t think it’s a generational thing, either — the “we’re smarter than our parents were” attitude has been around since, oh, pretty much the dawn of time.

        This reminds me of a hilarious lines from the 1938 movie Jezebel:

        This is 1852 dumplin’, 1852, not the Dark Ages. Girls don’t have to simper around in white just because they’re not married.

        Julie Marsden (played by Bette Davis)

        And thank you for the G. K. Chesterton.

  9. Another data point here – when someone is spending every scrap of their time and energy simple *surviving* (as was common for most people up until quite recently), that person doesn’t have the mental or physical energy for anything else. If you’re wearing yourself out just getting by, there’s no way you’re going to have anything left to start new trends, learn another language, or even figure out a better way to get water to your field.

    This is something we “enlightened” modern folk have very little idea about, because we lead such phenomenally sheltered lives by comparison to just about everyone else who ever lived.

  10. masgramondou

    I think the smirk is the difference between laughing with someone or laughing at them in comedy. The really good comedians (writers, TV shows whatever) make you laugh with the characters, the less good ones make you laugh at some despised minority over there. Think Monty Python vs Bill Maher. Oddly enough good comedy tends to be far more long lasting, and not just because it becomes politically incorrect to tell jokes about women, gays, jew, darkies, chinks, wops, dagoes etc.

    And to go back to the throw away comment above about the 20s. Anyone who writes about that era and hasn’t immersed themselves in Wodehouse and DL Sayers is going to come a cropper, at least regarding the UK. And it is worth noting that Bertie Wooster may appear to be an upper class twit but, despite occasional manglings of latin, greek etc, he can quote the bible (he has a bit that’s something like “I think of myself as one of the liiles of the field who toil not neither do they spin…”), Shakespeare and much more.

    • I’d like to mention that as I was writing this as I was trying to say that, in a way, just wasn’t sure HOW to do it. I mean, in my musketeer mysteries I make them implausible and some of the fights are beyond impossible (someone with concussion and a broken ankle cannot fight six men.) HOWEVER it was sort of a game with the reader, a tall tale, you know “AND THEN THERE WERE GIANTS, but there WAS A DRAGON, BIGGER THAN THE GIANTS” and I hope that comes across. (I was sort of doing Dumas, too, and he surely did that.) The difference would be, to have the musketeers think like modern people and everyone around them be very unenlightened by OUR lights, and the musketeers feeling all superior to them — if that makes sense.

  11. I wonder if some authors have the… interesting issue I had with one of my associates who read the 50% freebie on my duology — I’d set up a society that was intended to be intensely, intensely racist. It’s one of the hurdles the non-“pure blooded” female protagonist has to contend with. Unfortunately, for that reader… it came across as “author believes this society is accurate” rather than “author sympathizes with protagonist and therefore anything so psychologically damaging should be viewed as a metaphorical dragon to be slain.” (That reader didn’t like the protagonist, which is a hazard of the approach, in retrospect; if your protagonist is the nominal “token X,” then failure to sympathize with the protagonist can make someone forget the author sympathizes with the protagonist, I think. Learning experience for me. We go on. My authorial ego is soothed that, even disliking both viewpoint protagonists, she was doing “just one more chapter” till she hit the end of the 50% freebie.)

    So if someone wants to show authentic characters of the era, warts and all… I wonder how many betas, editors, etc., give pushback of “how can you possibly have that character believe X?? X is vile. You need to give more cues that of course that attitude is benighted and unacceptable.” Which… probably leads to sneering as one writes, and/or not really bothering to do the research because it’s all full of Icky Benighted Attitudes. (Which, yeah, it often is. This may be a “gotta know the rules before you break them” thing, though…)

    • callanprimer

      Beth, I’m struggling with that with the WIP. My main character comes across some black POWs in the 1930s(it’s an alt hist) and I’m trying to deal with normal attitudes of decent people without tripping the ick factor in modern sensibilities. I may just turn them white to avoid all the aggravation, even though they sprang into the scene almost fully formed.

      • Which is a whole ‘nother can of worms, of making that skin-tone “invisible,” as I understand the issues. (I’m not in the camp of Political Correctness, but I do try to be somewhat aware of Don’t Hurt People Unnecessarily issues.) Definitely a “can’t win for losing” situation! (…Maybe make some white and some black, and give your protagonist a little wake-up call that X is X no matter what the skin color? Or have the shared experiences cause different (and more modernly acceptable) behaviors among the white POWs?

        Or, depending on your writing style, write ’em with the normal attitudes/alt history attitudes, and return later to decide.)

        Much sympathies!!! Alt-history seems even more fiddly than historical (where at least one has the excuse of “augh, this was how it was”) or straight fantasy, where one can try to fiddle things with a bit more flexibility. 😦

      • This can be navigated. All you need is some finesse. I don’t mind characters having “modern” attitudes, provided you give them a reason to. I was stuck with making a Masai girl an independent woman (argh) in Heart of Light, and gave her a unique and odd history to achieve that. I recommend that your character have some odd friend/relative who is black. Of course I’m shooting in the dark, since I don’t know your alt hist but it can go anywhere from having a half-sibling who is black, having a childhood friend who is black, or something seemingly passing and accidental, like he was drowning — or thought he was — as a kid and a black person risked his/her life to save him. It would change the character. But of course to avoid the smirk, he can’t go around saying “in the future, they’ll see I’m right and they’re wrong.” It could be more a vague feeling of sorrow that other people around him don’t understand this, and also confusion and embarrassment if someone should see him hobknobbing with “inferiors” — I hope that makes some sense. Lisa Klaypas who, as I said, has a lot of ideas to annoy me, does this admirably in her regencies (x in the morning z in the afternoon — I don’t remember the series name) by creating an absolutely odd past for her family. It doesn’t come across as “the smirk” because there are reasons for the characters’ to be different from their contemporaries. (Mind in addition to fuzzy ideas on pacifism, there’s an AWFUL lot of sex to flip past.)

        • A true story that might be useful comes from an elderly relative who grew up in the Jim Crow South. She had been told by her family that black people were black all the way through (rlly!) and since she was quite young, she believed it. One of the nearby sharecropper’s sons gashed his head somehow when she was around, and she was SHOCKED to discover he was pink and red inside just like she was — and it lead her stubborn, curious self to wonder what *else* she had been told wasn’t true 😉 Never mind what happened when she found out why the sharecropper kids didn’t “have” to go to school… Fury, Avenging, One Ea.

    • Along that line, I would recommend The Rover Boys.

      It’s a l.o.n.g. series written by “house” writers covering the life-experiences (romantically exaggerated) of boys and young men, all members of a high-school class in the Gilded Age (late 1800s, early 1900s). They can be hard to find, but they still show up in used book piles here and there. I only own two of them: Dave Darrin’s First Year at Annapolis and its sequel (the second year, natch) but I’ve at least seen the others.

      Having one under your arm when you go to an editorial conference might be useful. Being more or less machine-produced, they represent contemporary attitudes fairly accurately (no, I wasn’t alive then, but I was raised in a backward area, and some of those attitudes still survived half a century later). It can be an eye-opener to read about boys beating up on weaker kids or expressing contempt for minorities, and realize that the books were written to present contemporary audiences with behaviors that were admirable, things to be emulated by their presumed readers.

      There are other “boys’ books” of the same era, equally valuable in that respect, but the Rover Boys books stand out as having at least minimal literary standards to a modern eye. I don’t think you can really figure out what’s going on in E. R. Burroughs if you don’t have at least part of that background.

      • Having looked it up, I see by Wikipedia that my recollections were wrong. Dave Darrin is part of a series by H. Irving Hancock that begins with The Grammar School Boys and is/was contemporary with The Rover Boys.

        Hancock apparently wrote under his own name as well as pseudonyms. The Wikipedia article now has me lusting for his alt-history series in which Germany invades the US in 1920. It ought to be grand stuff.

          • I think I’ve found the alt-history series Ric Locke was talking about: the Invasion of the United States series, also apparently known as the “Uncle Sam’s Boys” series. Wikipedia claims it has four books, but this library search turns up six books with “Uncle Sam’s Boys” in the title, so Wikipedia is probably wrong (gasp! shock! horror!).

            Also, Project Gutenberg seems to have all the Uncle Sam’s Boys books except the first one.

          • Didn’t find that, Sarah. Wikipedia has it as The Invasion of the United States with a link, but the link goes to a stub that doesn’t even mention Hancock at all.

            The Grammar School Boys series is on-line as HTML all the way through Pershing, but the alt-hist is nowhere to be found.

            • I read that book: The Invasion of the United States. It was intended as a Dreadful Warning about U.S. neutrality in WWI — basically “if we sit this out, one side’s going to wind up in control of all Europe, and then they’re going to come kick our asses.”

              The actual war description is interesting as a pre-WWI mindset trying to understand and extrapolate WWI warfare, and failing. The Unnamed Europeans sail their invasion force across the Atlantic in one gigantic fleet, escorted by all the naval force of combined Europe. They land in New England and . . . loot the banks. Really. That’s what the invasion was for.

        • Lots of period books had a pretty modern attitude about race and even gender to a degree. They were just stealthy about it.

          I recently read Booth Tarkington’s delightful Penrod (speaking of turn-of-the-century boys’ books – and free on Gutenberg). He does the make-them-funny thing, but makes them competent and intelligent (funny sneaks a lot of things in).

          Amazon has the Rover Boys and the Dave Darrin books on kindle, btw. Thanks, and timely, since I’ve been reading lots of turn-of-the-century boys books. Check out the Lawrenceville stories, like The Prodigious Hickey, if you can find them. Hilarious 1890s boy’s prep school stories.

          • Kipling’s Stalky & Co?

            • Yes, love that one, re-read that just before the Lawrenceville books.Has one of the most chilling segments on bullying I’ve ever seen.

          • Lots of period books had a pretty modern attitude about race and even gender to a degree. They were just stealthy about it.

            Disagree, Laurie. What you very often find in contemporary books, especially the ones we’ve been discussing, is the precursors to modern attitudes — the memes and themes that led to the way we think in the present day. I’ve been chatting with a friend in email about A Princess of Mars in that connection, and wrote a blog post about it (which nobody reads, because I’ve become so dilatory about blogging that I’ve lost my readership).

  12. callanprimer

    gol-durned WordPress . . . it keeps changing my name from Kali.

  13. derekchamberlain

    Another great topic, Sarah. Thank you.

    “The difference between Bill Maher and Monty Python…”
    I think that might actually be the difference between British and American comedy. From where I sit, most American comedy seems to be about poking fun at people, whereas most British comedy seems to be about showing people doing funny things or stuck in totally bizarre situations.

    I think the point of the ‘smirk’ comes down to whether or not the writer respects their characters or not. Whether they are, in fact, writing a work of fiction or a work of satire. Not that there can’t be satirical fiction, but this relates back to one of Sarah’s earlier posts, Are you writing to tell a story, or to make a Point? If you’re writing to make a point, it’s a lot less interesting and satisfying for the reader because many writers sacrifice character and plot in order to make that point.

    I can’t remember who said it (my brain is another metaphorical compost heap), but someone said that we all need to feel superior to someone, just as a matter of maintaining our egos. I think the whole movement to not have people fail or lose at school is part of this effort to change that paradigm, so that we’re only comparing ourselves with ourselves. The problem is that they’re going about it the wrong way. They haven’t actually changed any of the ways in which kids compare themselves to each other, they aren’t helping the kids to find their own unique talents, they’re just refusing to recognise excellence. I hate to say it, but The Declaration was wrong, all ‘men’ were ‘created’ unequal. It’s a fact of life. The point it should have made was that, despite their differences, everyone should be treated equally and have the same opportunities.

    To bring that back to the topic, I think the reason that people feel so superior to the past, is because, 1. They actually know so little about it, and 2. They need to feel superior to someone, and being ‘racist’ about your ancestors is a lot more politically correct than being ‘racist’ against blacks or hispanics or the French or the disabled. (Or is that supposed to be ‘physically challenged’? I can’t keep up with the new PC language.)

  14. And when carefully researching, you always hit *the* over-the-top this-really-happened-this-way roadblock. Every period and place has them. For the rural Midwest in the 1920s, it’s that the local power structure in just about every tiny town and county was closely tied in to the power structure of the local KKK. Wasn’t necessarily true for any other time or place. Was certainly not true for the urban Midwest. And the KKK was at least as much about Roman Catholics as it was about blacks. And no matter what the period or the place, you have four choices – ignore it completely, because it’s not really germane to your plot. (Cozy about garden club shenanigans.) Make it a pivotal or sidepoint, and give your protagonist some but not all of the attitudes. There’s enough primary source for almost any time to show that attitudes differed among some folks. I have letters from my grandfather to his cousins at that time who used what is now called the “n-word,” but lost his job because he wouldn’t join the KKK at the suggestion of the superintendent of schools. Or finally, go with the full attitudes, and make it work. Which is really, really, hard. Or go with fancy-dress. But I don’t do smirky well.

  15. Right off, before I read any other comments (so, if somebody else has already made my point, well, it’s still right and great minds think …) I think that the problem is the author’s ego. While recognizing and reporting on the views of the characters’ era the author is being careful to make sure you know he (or she) doesn’t share those beliefs.

    That distancing from the characters also distances the reader, alienates the reader from the characters. Write a book set in an Alabama small town in the 1930s and you will have racists. The author who is honest about those racists, who presents them as honestly holding their beliefs and still able to be decent human beings will … eh, you know where this is going and don’t need me to drive the distance.

    • An addendum … when i was a young adult a family friend told me how she’d learned how JFK bought the 1960 West Virginia primary by paying $5 a vote in the Negro (that’s what they were called then) neighborhood.

      Being still a bit callow back then my initial reaction was shock, appalled that American citizens would sell their votes. Then it occurred to me that, for a Black man living in West Virginia in 1960 … what did it matter which rich white man won the presidency? Deliver your vote, take the $5.00, and buy some groceries (five bucks bought plenty of groceries back then, too.)

      If your novel is set in that era and you have reason to depict those votes being sold, portray it honestly, recognizing the truth of the transaction from the characters’ view. Don’t hold them at arm’s length, don’t smirk at the reader to ensure they know you would never sell your vote. Respect your characters — because if you don’t, neither will the reader.

  16. On the topic of “the values of a period”: Might I ask why the arguments presented so far assume every single person of a given culture held the exact same beliefs and values, without exception? I ask this because on that basis, the American Civil War could not have happened, as it required people living at the same time with mutually-opposed, and irreconcilable, belief systems.

    That someone mentioned Monty Python reminds me of one of the better sequences from the movie _Silverado_. Danny Glover’s character has been involved in a fight with an innkeeper (“Carter”). Into the situation steps the town Sheriff — played by John Cleese. The Sheriff asks, “What’s all this then?”. Carter responds, “This n***** came in and started bustin’ up my shop!”. *Instantly* the Sheriff responds through firmly-clenched teeth, “I don’t like that word, Carter.” The film’s makers have immediately established two conflicting world-views (Carter’s bigotry; the Sheriff’s intense dislike of same) in the space of about five seconds, both of which were reasonably common at the time (this being post-ACW). And without giving away too much: Let’s just say the Sheriff isn’t on the side of the angels, or the Heroes, either. 🙂

    • No, that’s part of the smirk. People behave according to their color and class, except the MC and her/his super duper modern politically correct powers. That’s what I mean by working in stereotypes only. Actually if you use the technique of giving the MC and a few selected others different beliefs FOR A REASON, then you come across FAR MORE believable. (Of course minor characters are stereotypes. Doing otherwise is like an actor trying to give the butler who comes in to announce “the tea is served, madam” a full personality. I’ve seen this — my checkered youth included amateur theatrics — and by the time that buttler glides, or limps or mutters across the floor on the way to the one line, no one is thinking “ooh, what a great character,” instead you think “Why is that twerp distracting us from the main action?”)

      • Not only is it part of the smirk, it illustrates that you don’t have to go back a full hundred years to experience the effect.

        The whole point of that routine in historical context is that the Cleese character is roughly as anachronistic as handing Richard III a tommygun. That’s what was funny about it, first time around — and that’s less than thirty years ago.

        • Um, actually, the way the Old West operated, it was entirely probable for a non-native-born-but-still-white-and-English-speaking person to turn up as a town sheriff, or other such personality. Folks were still de-assing the Old Countries in droves throughout the period (there are infamous tales from the ACW of Union Army recruiters setting up on the docks and signing up immigrants who hadn’t been off the boat five seconds…), for a variety of reasons. In many cases, the “town sheriff” may well have been the “town miscreant” in the OC. (Folks think immigration control is bad *now*…. >;) )

          As to the film in question: Of the two main characters (there are four total) introduced by that point: Kevin Kline’s character is established as believing “you go through life like everyone’s your friend, or no one is” (and the manner of his intro shows this isn’t always the best idea…), while Scott Glenn’s is established as someone who tries to do what’s “right” (and did three years behind bars for it); they saw the entire fight, including the lead-up, and decided to not cover for the liar. (There may have been a subtext of “Glover’s character is more like us than the townie behind the bar”, but that’s conjecture.) So even tho’ the audience “knows” Kline’s and Glenn’s characters are “supposed to be Good Guys”, the fact remains their reaction to the situation was perfectly within the bounds of their characters. (At any rate: This GM won’t be penalizing the players for out-of-character behavior. 🙂 )

          • Without giving anything crucial away that whole action is a set up for a marvelously delivered exchange with Mr. Cleese as Sheriff Langston:

            Deputy: That them shootin’?
            Sheriff Langston: No, it’s coming from those rocks.
            Deputy: Well, let’s go. He ain’t hittin’ nothin’.
            Sheriff Langston: You idiot, he’s hit everything he’s aimed at!
            Deputy: Well, they ain’t out of our jurisdiction ’til they reach the flattop.
            [Sheriff Langston’s hat is shot off his head]
            Sheriff Langston: Today, my jurisdiction ends here. Pick up my hat.

          • I think I’ll have you playing Robespierre in the next Earth revolution book — Revolution — I think you crashed and went to ground and… yes…. — rubs hands together.

          • Sure, but that’s not what’s out of order.

            The chance that a Brit, German, &ct. immigrant of that period would object strongly to “n…r”, is essentially nil. The word was common parlance, used without consideration by those with proto-liberal views as well as the deeply prejudiced — “The n..r who runs the general store” and “the German who runs the livery stable” would have been equivalent at the time. In that usage it’s a simple identifier that doesn’t convey either compliment or denigration [and please note the root of the latter word].

            • I suspect everyone here remembers the controversy that erupted January a year ago when it was announced that there would be a the new edition of Huckleberry Finn which will replace the ‘n’ word with the word slave. The words are not synonyms. The ‘n’ would have been used to describe any black person, free or slave.

              In the process of the tale Huck, and the readers with him, are shown that the runaway Jim is respect worthy. He is, in fact, the most respect worthy person in the book.

              Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”

              so Huck writes a letter to Jim’s owner to turn him in, but:

              It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
              “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” — and tore it up.

              In the process of figuring out what we want Human Wave SF/F to be we have discussed respecting the reader, avoiding polemics and showing, not lecturing. Talk about an example of an author showing a reader, not lecturing. (Unfortunately this appears to be lost in the modern controversy over the ‘n’ word.)

            • This raises an issue in writing Historical Fiction: words change meaning. It is no use to demand a reader a) hold the relevant historical knowledge regarding derogatory slang terms of the period and b) hold that in mind while reading.

              We’ve covered the “n-word”, “gay’ used to mean cheerful, exuberant, possessed of a joie ve vivre, Wop used to be a simple acronym formed from With Out Papers, similar acronyms supposedly gave us Posh (Port Out, Starboard Home) and Kike (sadly, I forget the derivation.)

              In stories set in the future authors have solved this problem through use of nonsense words. Heinlein anticipated it The Door Into Summer by having his narrator ruefully acknowledge the changed meaning of “kinky.” But in Historical Fiction many words that were once common are now taboo and many words that were deepest insult are now casual swearing – e.g., bastard.

              It is a challenge.

            • Admittedly, it was used by most people; but mainly because the other terms were equally cumbersome (for ex.: “Ethiopean” was occasionally used, even for blacks not from there). What term was used varied with the person speaking (there’s a sidebar on this in an old _Call of Cthulhu_ scenario; I’d have to dig it up to provide details, but the short form is: Some terms were seen as too “hoity-toity”; others too inaccurate; still others weren’t in common parlance; and there was the general matter of the two races keeping apart in most parts of the country, so referring to “them” wasn’t common to begin with); a hardline abolitionist would be highly unlikely to use it, for obvious reasons. So I chalk up Cleese’s character’s reaction to him having once been on the side of the abolitionists.

  17. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    Reminds me, I never did comment on the article.

    I agree. Writers who don’t immerse themselves in their work, and do so honestly, mess up. If you don’t believe in your writing, don’t believe in your characters, don’t believe in your background, your work will suck.

    It may be “technically” well written. The periods and commas may be in the right places, the grammar may be Chicago Manual of Style. It won’t matter. The reader won’t believe it.

    They may not know why they don’t believe it, but they won’t.


  18. I’d have to recommend “Slammerkin”, by Emma Donohue. It’s a historical novel, but she has a background in the history of the period and actually writes her character as someone who could possibly have existed at the time.

    I am so, so sick of all the “historical” novels where the writer basically puts a time traveller into the time period (but not explicitly; one wouldn’t want something too interesting) and just sneering at them. So, basically, what you just said.